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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Messe à l’usage ordinaire de paroisses, pour les fêtes solenelles (1690) [52:06]
Messe propre pour les couvents des Réligieux, et Réligieuses (1690) [41:58]
Jean-Baptiste Robin (Cliquot organ of Poitiers Cathedral)
rec. Poitiers, August 2004, DDD
NAXOS 8.557741-42 [52:06 + 41:58]
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François Couperin was born into a musical family in Paris in November 1668, his father being organist at St Gervais. Alas Charles died early in 1679, but not before introducing his son to the organ and harpsichord. The boy proved talented and the administrators at St Gervais were so eager to retain his services that they persuaded Michel-Richard de Lalande (a future Master of the Chapel Royal) to hold the position provisionally until young François came of age.

By 1690 Couperin had secured royal privilege to publish his "Pièces d’Orgue", including the two masses on this disc. The set was lavishly praised by de Lalande, who remarked, "(they are) very fine and worthy of being offered to the public".

For centuries the mass had been celebrated with the use of plainsong, characterised by alternation of sung sections between the celebrant and the choir. Gradually however, as church organs were introduced, and became more reliable, there was an increasing desire to give them a greater role in the religious service. In France their use was codified in the Caeremoniale Parisiense of 1668. Sometimes portrayed as a set of rigorous and hidebound rules, these were actually a reasonably flexible set of guidelines designed to aid the organist in his task.

Couperin’s masses follow this style and do not deviate significantly from those of his contemporaries, the organ essentially being used either to fill in gaps in the service or gently to amplify the meaning of the text, either sung quietly by the choir or spoken by the celebrant. Indeed they have been presented in this way in previous recordings, one example being Erato’s 1995 release of the "Mass for the Parishes", performed by the distinguished organist Marie-Claire Alain and Les Chantres de la Chapelle de Versailles (0630-17581-2).

However the soloist on this present release, Jean-Baptiste Robin - who is incidentally a pupil of Madame Alain - prefers to "highlight the purely musical content" and so both works are presented, as it were, unadorned. This is a perfectly respectable decision, given that in relation to the "Mass for the Convents" current research has failed to unearth any specific plainchant text.

Furthermore, when the instrument involved is the famous Cliquot organ of Poitiers, his choice is easily vindicated. This gem is considered to be François-Henri Cliquot’s masterpiece, the last in a long line designed and constructed by a family designated "organ builders to the King", and whose origins date back a decade or so before Couperin’s birth.

Robin, who has studied with Olivier Latry and Louis Robilliard as well as Alain, won an open competition in 2000 to become organist of the Cathedral of St Pierre. It is therefore hardly a surprise that he clearly knows and loves this instrument and is capable of using its marvellous colours to best advantage. He seems a mite livelier than Alain, capturing the spirit of the dance, which imbues so much French music of this period. Moreover the wonderful reed sounds are particularly well caught by the engineers who seem to have adopted, to their advantage, a slightly more distant microphone placing than their Erato counterparts a decade earlier.

The felicities are many. For instance listen to the contrasts between registrations in the various sections of the Gloria of the Mass for the Convents; the tierce, trompette and chromhorne are sheer delight, as is the gorgeous reedy pedal at the end of the Offertoire in the companion mass.

I suppose this issue will inevitably be classified as specialist repertoire, a point reinforced during a recent scouting expedition to a local retail outlet, which did not yield one copy among their new Naxos releases. Shame on them! Even with the recent price rise these discs must count as a great bargain, and deserve a wider audience. Thoroughly recommended.

Ian Bailey



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